February 25, 2013
BRUSSELS — The cadaver of a man lies under an intense yellow light from the street lights. His face is hidden by the angle from which the photograph was taken. An abundant stream of blood flows from his head and goes down the badly paved street. Four police officers are walking a few yards away, they seem to ignore the body.
It is the scene of a crime committed in March, 2010, in the Colonia Paso del Norte, in Ciudad Juarez (Chih.) The image, apart from morbidness and yellow journalism, still poses questions for the spectator; it’s the work of veteran Dutch war photographer Teun Voeten, and is part of the graphic book, Narco Estado: Narco-violence in Mexico.
The work, from the Belgian publisher Lannoo, received financial support from the Pascal Decroos Fund for Special Journalism in Belgium and the Emergency Fund of the Magnum Foundation in New York.
From 2009 to 2011, Teun Voeten visited Mexico several times. He was impressed when he learned that Ciudad Jarez was one of the most dangerous cities in the world. During that time, he took photographs related to violence not only in Juarez — which he visited 10 times –, but also in Culiacan, Sinaloa, and Morelia, Michoacan.
Howard Campbell, professor of archeology and researcher on Mexican affairs at the University of Texas, speaks about Voeten’s work: “In his work, the ‘day to day-ness’ of another body being found is represented by a soldier who takes a picture of the body with his cell phone.
Meanwhile, the chiaroscuro images of sinister Juarez streets provide the backdrop for a modern underground war whose victims are almost all poor. As Voeten’s gallery of photographs shows, Juarez is a place where drinking, drugs and cheap sex are key business elements, and the participants in that business have hard, fast and short lives.”
In an interview with Proceso, Voeten comments that at the beginning of his project, he contacted Juarez authorities and asked to be allowed to accompany police officers when they went out to crime scenes.
“I got a lot of cooperation from the Mayor’s office. I realize it was easier for me as a foreigner to be allowed to accompany them, because this represents a huge risk to local journalists; the narcos may consider them allies of the police,” he explains.
He points out that it was the previous administration who was so helpful, and he says: “The current one wants to give the impression that there is no more violence in Juarez.”
The photographer also asked the military for permission to accompany them; however, he says they made excuses and he was not able to obtain permission. “It was a Mexican style ‘No’”, he says with a smile.
In the introduction to his book, as well as in the interview, he states that documenting narco-violence is a challenge, because the opposing groups “are hidden players, unknown, who operate from behind a veil of secrecy.”
He assures us that he has witnessed every kind of act of barbarism that humans are capable of committing against fellow humans. “In Sarajevo, during the Bosnia-Hersegovina war, I fled from snipers who were firing at civilians in an enclosed area where they were also starving to death.
“In Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, I was there at the start of the genocide and saw hordes hunting their victims with machetes. In Kabul (Afghanistan) and Grozni (Chechen Republic), I walked through residential neighborhoods that were in ruins and alongside people who were begging for food.”
He also mentions that he got his “dose of madness” in the conflicts in Sierra Leone and Liberia, where he dealt with totally drugged child soldiers. More recently, he says, in Libya he saw bodies that were piled up after a massacre.
Despite this, he assures us that nothing compares with the extreme narco-violence in Mexico.
“In Rwanda, for example, they would kill people but they would leave the bodies alone. In Mexico, they first savagely torture the victims, then they dismember them, mutilate them, hang them; the murderers show off their savagery in very creative ways: the sadism I have seen in Mexico I haven’t seen in any other part of the world. In Sierra Leone, I witnessed insanity, but In Mexico it is totally demented,” he states. Voeten, from his training as an anthropologist, offers an explanation for what is happening in Mexico. To begin with, he defines it as a “war,” but of a kind that experts in security matters call “new wars.” The conflicts in Afghanistan, Sierra Leone, Rwanda, Bosnia or Liberia are examples of this phenomenon.
These wars, unlike conventional wars where States face each other with professional armies in defined battle fields, are characterized by being prolonged, low intensity conflicts in which ideology does not matter and where hostile factions use religious and ethnic causes as pretexts. In that context, the civilian population becomes the target of attacks.
In those “new wars” — Teun goes on — the absence of the rule of law, the chaos and anarchy, becomes an end in itself, “a necessary precondition for the war lords to exploit local resources, like drugs or minerals, and they may create a black market under their control.” Such conflicts are not financed by central governments, but through murky agreements between rival factions with criminal elements, he explains.
And, he points out: “In Mexico, that ‘new war’ phenomenon has gone farther. Rival factions no longer need to develop links with international crime because they are already criminal mafias.”